While Notre Dame was busy racking up the most point, most yards, and most rushing yards in the Brian Kelly Era on Saturday afternoon in their 62-27 blowout of UMass, Notre Dame’s somewhat unheralded freshman class was busy showing recruiting evaluators everywhere that their class ranking just might have been way too low.
Notre Dame’s 2015 recruiting class fell just outside the top 10 according to Rivals back in February. A solid ranking but not an elite ranking. On Saturday, however, that freshman class provided four touchdowns including the game changing play that turned what was a closer than it should have been contest into a rout.
Up just one point over a UMass team they were a four touchdown favorite over, Notre Dame’s defense forced a three and out after Tyler Newsome pinned the Minutemen inside the one yard line. Brian Kelly sent out his pint sized freshman speedster CJ Sanders back to return the punt. Sanders fielded the punt with about 15 yards between him and any defender and ran through the UMass coverage on his way to the endzone for the first punt return touchdown of his career to give Notre Dame a 28-20 lead.
After Sanders’ punt return, the Irish went on to score 41 unanswered points before UMass added a late touchdown against the Irish reserve defense.
Of those six touchdowns, four of them came via Notre Dame’s freshman class. After Sanders’ return touchdown, Dexter Williams scored his first career touchdown with a 14 yard third quarter run. Frosh signal caller Brandon Wimbush got on the field for the first time in his career and turned in a 58 yard touchdown run of his own. Then in the fourth quarter Josh Adams scored the third touchdown of his young career with a 70 yard touchdown that also gave the freshman back the first 100 yard outing of his career.
Adams, Williams, Wimbush, and Sanders weren’t the only freshmen contributing though. With Durham Smythe out for the season, Alize Jones stepped up at the tight end position with three catches for 56 yards and came oh so close to scoring his first career touchdown as well on a nice catch and run in the third quarter. Jerry “Don’t Call Me Terry” Tillery has been a major factor at defensive tackle for the Irish since week one with Jaron Jones out for the year as well.
With all of the injuries Notre Dame has sustained already this year the freshman class has been thrust into more prominent roles than maybe anyone thought they would be in, but these kids have responded early with the poise of veterans. Williams and Adams will continue to be called upon despite CJ Prosise’s record setting pace as the only backups to Notre Dame’s out of nowhere star running back. Jones has a chance to continue to be a factor in the passing game as well with Smythe out and none of the other veteran tight ends establishing themselves yet. Then there’s Wimbush. While Deshone Kizer has looked rock solid in his first two career starts, Wimbush is just a play away from being Notre Dame’s quarterback of the present just as Kizer was three was ago.
What’s maybe the most encouraging about this freshman class is many of the more heralded recruits are still waiting for their chance as well. Tevon Coney cut his teeth in mop up duty yesterday and was very active once on the field. Fellow linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas were both also 4-star recruits but are stuck behind a loaded Notre Dame linebacker depth chart. Equanimeous St. Browne recorded his first career catch and nearly scored a long touchdown as well but it was called back due to an illegal man downfield penalty. Nick Coleman was out there in the second half as well.
Oh yeah, and then there’s nickel back Shaun Crawford who was set to start his career in the Irish starting lineup but was lost for the year in camp. Once he is back on the field this class will be even stronger.
It’s still very early in their careers, but if Saturday was any indication of what this freshman class is capable of, Brian Kelly and his staff will have shown that just maybe they know a tad bit more than all of those recruiting experts.